The Rev. Reginald Green travelled through the Deep South with the Freedom Riders, in order to challenge the inequality of segregation. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)

Almost 50 years ago, the Rev. Reginald Green stood among violent racists in the American South and challenged segregation. Now he serves as the D.C. First Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s interim pastor.

Though he was only 19 at the time of the Rides, Green said he felt compelled to contest racial injustice as a student of the ministry. According to Green, justice functions as a spiritual directive and as a social one. “My whole attitude was, here I am preparing for ministry, and my understanding of the Gospel was a social context to it. That Gospel is about liberation. It’s about being whole. And here was the moment of truth in which I could honor the Immanuel Kant postulates that you do what you do because you ought to do it,” Green told the AFRO.

“There has always been a spiritual element to those who fight against injustice because at its core, faith is about believing in God’s ability to knock down powerful tyranny.”

Freedom Riders consisted of a small group of Black and White college students who boarded interstate buses in 1961 and traveled to Mississippi and Alabama to fight segregation in the transit system. Bracketed by newly signed federal laws that counted segregated buses unconstitutional, the Freedom Riders, set out to test the effectiveness and enforcement of those laws.

The group met with unimagined hostilities, which included pelting the vehicle with rocks and bricks, slashing tires, smashing windows with pipes and axes and, at one Anniston, Ala. bus station, tossing a firebomb through one of the broken windows, Green said. As smoke and flames filled the bus, the mob, reportedly, barricaded the doors and began chanting: “Burn them alive,” and “Fry the godamned niggers.”

Before the fuel tank could explode, state troopers, who had been standing by watching, interceded and allowed the riders to safely flee the burning bus.

For Green, who had joined the Freedom Rides without telling his parents, the level of hatred proved shocking, and his mission, that much more urgent. Green continued the Ride into Mississippi, where he was arrested with the others.

“Well, a reporter from New York got the names of all of us on the bus and I’m not sure how, but he located my father and called him. My father of course, thought I was in Richmond, and told the reporter, ‘I was working for the summer before going back to school.’ That’s when the reporter said, ‘No, Mr. Green, your son is in jail in Mississippi,’” Green said.

Green said his time in Mississippi was the first time he truly felt frightened by the wave of racism and violence being directed toward non-violent activism. “I was then on the way to Jackson (Miss.) and someone had a transistor radio, they turned it up with a mic and there were some words coming across – ‘there’s some more Freedom Riders, some more of them niggers and those nigger lovers coming and they don’t know what trouble they’re in for.’ And that’s the first time you really began to think about it,” Green told the AFRO.

“I determined that with God on my side – on our sides – I would fight no matter the consequences to me personally. The Rides gave me an opportunity to understand that we’re so much more in common than the opposite of that. And the fact that you had White, Black, young, old, Jew, Catholic, Protestant in that episode in the ’60s is a testament to the power of diversity and acceptance of that diversity. The Scripture says ‘put your hands to the plow and don’t look back.’”